BY JOCELYN Y. STEWART
Artist Kent Twitchell (’72) knows Los Angeles. He knows the city’s energy, its wild mix of people, its aesthetics, and especially its walls.
That knowledge comes from decades of working on the streets of the city, creating murals. Twitchell gave Los Angeles those elegant orchestra musicians who overlook the 110 Freeway; the enigmatic Bride and Groom on the side of a downtown bridal shop; the Freeway Lady, draped in her colorful afghan, who once stared out from a freeway wall.
Los Angeles is his open-air gallery, housing a lifetime of his work. Making art that is intended to live outside, and is intended to become an integral part of civic life, has earned Twitchell an expansive audience. Generations of city residents who may never have visited an art gallery or museum have enjoyed rich art experiences through his murals. Twitchell’s signature pieces are now part of the city’s history.
“He’s one of the greatest…living muralists in the world,” says Eric Bjorgum, president of the board of directors of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. “It’s good to have someone like that in the community. He has painted [works of art] that are inherently indicative of Los Angeles or Southern California.”
His work has been collected by the Smithsonian, the Chicago Art Institute, the Long Beach Museum of Art, the Boise Art Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The institutions hold large drawings he creates before embarking on a mural.
“He’s not the first person to do this, but he’s one of the major ones doing museum quality work outside,” says Bjorgum, who is an intellectual property rights attorney. “It’s not spray cans; it’s serious art being done outside.”
Twitchell’s highly visible art has changed the nature of the urban outdoors, imbuing walls with life and meaning. The Los Angeles Times once wrote of Twitchell: “The city shaped him as much as he shaped its urban landscape.”
This reciprocal relationship had its start at Cal State LA. For Twitchell, the University was the perfect incubator—a public university, in the heart of the city, with an art department faculty open to new ways of seeing art.
Back then, the idea of painting museum quality work on the sides of buildings was still unusual.
“This was 1971. This really wasn’t done much,” he says, recalling his days at the University. “It really was that environment that enabled me to do it. The art instructors there were really so amenable to thinking outside of the box.”
Twitchell was born in 1942 and raised on a farm in Michigan. By high school he was earning money as an artist with the lettering skills an uncle taught him. In 1960, at the age of 17, Twitchell enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served as an illustrator. Of his five years in the military, three and a half were spent in England. The nation’s castles and cathedrals left him awestruck.
“There was something about them that changed me forever,” he recalls. “The spires going up into the sky; something so monumental and uplifting. It was an inspiration. I wanted that to be in my art.”
After his discharge Twitchell moved to Los Angeles. University study was not in his plans; the idea intimidated him.
“But I had the GI bill and I thought, ‘someday I’m going to wish I had done it,’” he told graduates of the College of Arts and Letters in 2016.
The CSU and Cal State LA awarded Twitchell an honorary degree of Doctor of Fine Arts during the 2016 Commencement ceremonies.
At East Los Angeles College, Twitchell earned an associate’s degree, but after a few years he decided to enroll at Cal State LA. His fears of academia gave way to delight. He explored his interests, taking classes in cinema, drama, industrial arts.
The idea to go big came to Twitchell as he sat in an illustration class at Cal State LA taught by Roy Walden, a tough military veteran and a master teacher. Walden was teaching about values, the lights and darks that create form in a painting. Walden’s method was to simplify the world by turning it into black and white, determining its values, and then later adding color and detail.
That method allowed Twitchell a mastery he had not had before. That’s when it hit him. “I figured whatever I was doing in his class, I could make it bigger,” says Twitchell, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art.
“I always loved Mt. Rushmore,” he says. “I remember seeing pictures of it in books when I was a kid. I dreamed of being a sculptor and doing giant sculptures.”
Making murals was more economical. But Twitchell needed an appropriate canvas. Cal State LA classmate Rebecca Yoon (’71) offered the first: a house her family owned in the Pico-Union district of downtown Los Angeles. When Yoon told her parents Twitchell was painting a “star,” they expected to see a celestial body. They were surprised to return home and find a portrait of actor Steve McQueen covering an outside wall of the home.
Twitchell’s first outdoor mural, Steve McQueen Monument (1971), at 12th and Union in Los Angeles. (Photos courtesy of Kent Twitchell)
And then, in a true Hollywood moment, their house became famous. Suddenly the portrait of McQueen was showing up in publications everywhere, from the Los Angeles Times to the London Times.
“It was just ridiculous...I thought I was the next Andy Warhol,” Twitchell quips.
One good thing led to another and another. The art department at Cal State LA received a postcard from an admirer offering Twitchell the opportunity to paint a mural on his East Hollywood building on Fountain Avenue, an offer Twitchell accepted. He created a portrait of Strother Martin, the actor from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, who delivered the classic line— “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”—after kicking Paul Newman into a ravine. Martin called after seeing and enjoying the mural.
When he was a senior at Cal State LA, Twitchell created The Freeway Lady. The portrait is believed to be the first mural painted on a freeway wall, he says.
“There were magical things happening to me when I was a student there,” Twitchell says. It wasn’t just that his professors were supportive of his huge endeavors. They gave him University credit for them. That official endorsement validated his work and encouraged him.
On the streets, reaction was mixed. “Hippies” loved it; other people didn’t know what to make it of it—until later when the media began featuring him in stories. But Twitchell was doing what he loved in the place he loves. He immersed himself in the communities where he created murals.
“I take very seriously the place that I’m in and I think like an architect,” he says. “I want the piece I’m making to fit naturally on the wall, as if it had always been there and for it to be a part of the trees, and the signage, and the street lights.”
Now 74, Twitchell is known as a master of portraiture in its purest form. Often his work depicts a lone figure looking directly at the observer.
“Kent’s work traverses the style of Pop, Photorealism, and Postmodern Realism.”
- Mika Cho, Chair of the Deparment of Art at Cal State LA
His subjects range from the well-known to the unknown. One of Twitchell’s heroes, Norman Rockwell, was known for using people in his town as the subjects of his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post. Following in that tradition, Twitchell paints the people of his town, the movie stars and the super stars and the regular folk of Los Angeles.
Early in his study of art, Twitchell noticed a strain of elitism that he’s bucked against ever since. At the core of his devotion to public art is a belief that art should be egalitarian.
“I’m a simple farm kid,” Twitchell says. “I wanted to do as good a job as I could and do it out in the street where it’s vulnerable.”
Whether it’s the Statue of Liberty, or a mural in a Metro station, art in public spaces redefines that space. Advocates of public art say it engages, sparks dialogue and can strengthen community. Fellow alum, Mark Steven Greenfield (’87), who has been commissioned to create a mural at the Metro station on Broadway, said public art reflects “an investment in a community.”
Yet, for all its benefits, public art must sometimes fight for the space it occupies.
Twitchell’s latest project is re-creating a work of his that was the subject of a landmark lawsuit. From a studio in Long Beach he has created the sections that together will form his new mural of L.A. artist Ed Ruscha. The mural will live on the side of the American Hotel in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles.
His original mural of Ruscha lived on the wall of a government-owned building and was finished in 1987, after a decade of work. The homage was white-washed in 2006 by a crew that was working on the YWCA Job Corps Center. That action disregarded a law that protects the rights of artists, requiring that they are informed and given an opportunity to preserve their works. The lawsuit settled for more than a million dollars, said Bjorgum, who litigated the case.
Ed Ruscha Monument by Kent Twitchell (1987). The mural at 1031 S. Hill St. in Los Angeles was illegally painted over in June 2006. (Photo courtesy of Kent Twitchell)
The outcome was more than a personal victory for Twitchell; it helped raise awareness about public art and its vital role in civic life. In fact, by the 1980s Twitchell could see that public art needed advocates. His work, and that of other muralists, was strangled by graffiti, making it difficult for people to see its value. “They began to equate public art with ugliness,” Twitchell recalls.
Twitchell co-founded and sits on the board of directors of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles. The conservancy is dedicated to restoring, preserving, and documenting the murals of Los Angeles. Working with Caltrans, the California Department of Transportation, the conservancy has helped to keep new graffiti off murals and to restore others. Since its inception the nonprofit has also helped increase appreciation for public art.
Last year, Twitchell received an honorary doctorate degree from the CSU Board of Trustees and Cal State LA “in recognition of his distinguished career, his contributions to the beauty of urban landscapes, and his role as an advocate for public art.”
Twitchell has heard the stories of people who grew up with his murals, seeing them on the way to school, or while shopping downtown.
“When they get older…it takes on other kinds of meanings,” he says. Those stories are the ones he remembers because they confirm his decision to place his art on city walls, for the people of the city to enjoy. No admission required.
“I wanted it to be outside where real people are, and to be a part of real life.”